On Thursday last week, I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing the famous chewing gum artist, Ben Wilson while he was at work on a King’s Road piece. I have some transcribing to do but you should see the interview up in the next day or two.
Ben then very kindly came round on Saturday to create a customised piece of chewing gum art at the Little London Observationist headquarters!
It was late afternoon when my phone rang. It was Ben. “I’m just downstairs. I’ve been working on your piece for a little while now!” So I made him a cup of tea, milk no sugar, and headed downstairs.
He had chosen a lovely blue-green colour for the base with a black outline and was already working on the design.
On Thursday, Ben had asked me what I’d like on the chewing gum. My first thought was a camera. So he took a photo of my hand holding my camera for inspiration.
Ben is sprawled out on his paint-splattered sleeping mat. He’s surrounded by his backpack, an open tool box full of paint, a torch and some lighters, a scraper, lacquer, paintbrushes, a cup of water and his paint dish where he mixes colours.
He also has a packet of crisps and a mug of tea.
Ben lapses in and out of silence when he works. Sometimes he’s lost in concentration. Other times he sits up telling me animated stories of his family, his three children, other artwork he has painted around the world and his general love of creativity and nature.
He works on such a tiny scale, but detail is very important in Ben’s work. He looks at me before he dips his brush in a spot of red paint and says, “Now this will really bring it to life!” I watch as he paints my fingernails on the hand holding the camera.
He must have a very steady hand and great eyesight. He’s been painting chewing gum on the streets of London – thousands and thousands of them – for almost 10 years now. October marks a decade.
He invited me to his studio to see some of his other projects so I am looking forward to that.
Ben paints full time, as you’ll read in his interview in the next few days. Sitting next to him on the pavement is a small flip notebook. While he’s working, people often approach with requests and he writes down what they would like as well as their contact details. He loves to connect with people and he takes these requests for free. To Ben, this is the beauty of his work and what he most enjoys.
Of course, an artist also has to make some money to survive. To this end, Ben also works on some commissioned projects like his new gum art trail that follows the King’s Road as part of Chelsea and Kensington’s InTransit Festival this month. Ben is following the “Route of Kings and Punks“. But more on that in the interview post this week.
Ben is working on the Little London Observationist lettering when the sky goes dark.
We feel a few drops, but Ben is well prepared to work in any weather – rain or shine, even snow. He digs his umbrella out from his backpack and pulls on a pair of reflective trousers.
And he carries on.
Ben works for a few hours. During this time, people at the pub across the street and passersby watch curiously, look backward as they walk past. I know many will come back to see what on earth he was doing painting on the ground – not a sight you often see around here.
Once the painting has been finished and it’s been set with a flame from a lighter, it’s time for a protective lacquer coat. Ben has a few cut outs in his toolbox which he uses to protect the pavement surrounding his work when he sprays the chewing gum.
Once he is satisfied with his work, he chips away any paint that may have dripped on the sidewalk and cleans up the edges. He’s very conscious about the impact we have on our environment which is much of the reason he paints on discarded chewing gum in the first place.
When the piece is finished, Ben hangs hangs around for a few minutes. He tells me a story of how he was once caught drawing mini “gum” pieces inside of street art books that feature his work. This was at the Tate Modern bookshop. He was scolded before the manager approached and was excited by the personal touch he had given them.
Then he picks up his old camera with its cracked screen and takes a few photos of the new chewing gum piece for his collection. He shows me a few photos of his mother and children.
And then he’s off. Ben loves to cook and is heading home to make a fish pie for his son for dinner.
For more background on Ben Wilson, here’s a lovely article that was published in The New York Times.